It’s really, really easy to write about a bad protagonist. Most of the time it doesn’t even happen on purpose, and it more often than not has nothing to do whether your character is male or female. One common thing I read about online regarding characters is how to write a “strong female character”. This makes me facepalm, because I don’t really believe that a “strong female character” should be a “strong character that happens to be female”, either (but this is something for another day).
So let’s start from the beginning. Protagonists are often difficult to write because if you do it wrong, you’ll lose/ignore/alienate/anger your reader. When you do it right, though, magic happens. Seriously. When a story has a good protagonist sometimes it doesn’t even matter how shitty your story is. For example I’m not particularly a fan of R.A. Salvatore because of the plots set in place (outside of Drizzt’s ideals, they’re mostly pretty generic), but instead because of what beautiful characters you’re given the opportunity to follow. Outside of Drizzt there’s Artemis Entreri, Cattie-Brie, Ellifain Tuuserail, Pikel, etc. Anyway, I’m straying a bit from the topic…
The Birth of a Protagonist
So, why is your protagonist the protagonist? This is a pretty important question. Personally, I don’t start with a character, I start with a scene. That first scene depicts a lot about your protagonist’s personality, and by observing it carefully you can learn exactly what about their reactions to that situation make them the protagonist of your story.
When I started writing Taichiren‘s Heart I knew nothing about any of the characters involved. I didn’t know my main character’s name until she was coerced into giving it to someone else. I didn’t develop a protagonist and throw her into the story, I didn’t create a story and a place protagonist inside; I planted a scene, a character appeared, and the story grew.
However I understand that this may not be a common technique amongst writers. I’ve learned that it’s relatively common for people to sort out all of a character’s quirks before putting them at the start and sending them off on their journey to the finish line, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There are a few things to be aware of, though.
Perfection is the Worst Quality
Most readers hate reading about a mary sue. I hate writing and reading about them. If you’re not familiar with the term, a mary sue refers to a character that’s always good, does everything perfect, knows everything, and whatever other traits you want to throw in that make them as flat, boring, and predictable as possible.
They’re too convenient. Your character must have flaws for your readers to love them. Your character must have the ability to grow, change, and evolve as the story progresses. There must be something that your character isn’t ready to take on, something that will ruin everything about them and make them rethink all of their choices. Why? Because that’s what real people are like. Real people aren’t one dimensional, we’re all a bit good and evil, we don’t purely make the right decisions, and we’re sure as hell not all intelligent, beautiful, and emotionally capable of handling half the shit our characters go through. Make them realistic, even compare them to real people if it makes it easier for you.
Your protagonist should have a goal, or some sort of motivation for doing what they’re doing. I hate most prophecy and chosen one stories simply because half of the time the main character doesn’t have any redeeming qualities for their shitty personality other than that they’re “meant to save the world”. Give your character something deeper to worry about, something that doesn’t stem from their popularity factor or causes inflated character egos. Well, what I mean is that your character should want something else other than to: get the girl, save the world, and/or prove the prophecy’s accuracy. Like maybe (this is a really bad example) your character just wants to save their dying mother, or they’ve just really wanted to try roasted dragon. You know, something different.
What common traits in protagonists really annoy you, and what protagonists annoy you but have qualities that “redeem” their character?